By Thomas Sellers Jr.
I’m using this October to open up and deal with some things that strike fear in my soul and bring me sorrow.
The Best Sellers’ List has already reflected on some tragic dates in Bluff City history. Then I got personal and shined a spotlight on things that scare me. Now I go deeper into my core with this week’s countdown.
I love sports and sports has been the centerpiece of my life for almost the entire 40 years of my existence. For me to go down this painful road is tough.
Here it goes people, my top 10 list of saddest days in Memphis sports history. Having a professional team in the Big Four leagues since 2001, the heritage of athletics in the M-Town is still rich and powerful.
The team to shoulder most of that lineage is the Memphis Tiger Basketball team. With a long list of favorite teams and various reasons, the Memphis Tigers are the only squad I was taught to love.
My uncle Leotis set me down at the tender age of 4 in front of a TV. With the channel of WPTY, he simply said, “This is our team. This is your team. You’ll love them.”
He was right and that passion for my Memphis Tigers has brought its share of joy and happiness. And as you’ll read in this breakdown, its fair share of pain and heartache.
10. March 26, 1973
Tigers vs. UCLA National Title Game in St. Louis
The Memphis State Tigers made their national debut with this iconic team featuring Larry Kenon, Ronnie Robinson, Wes Westfall, Bill Cook, Bill Laurie and the greatest Tiger of them all Larry Finch.
The UCLA Bruins were a national powerhouse and the clear favorites. Behind Bill Walton’s 21 of 22 performance, the Bruins won 87-66 in the National Championship game.
The Tigers finished the season 24-5 and ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll. Memphis Head Coach Gene Bartow guided this legendary team into the hearts and history of Memphis. More importantly, Memphis State had arrived on the NCAA College Basketball stage. This moment isn’t as heartbreaking because Memphis State overachieved and the members of this team will forever be respected and beloved.
9. May 1, 2006
Grizzlies swept for third straight playoff series
In 2004, the sage Hubie Brown guided our new NBA team the Memphis Grizzlies to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. That overachievement included 50 wins, a Coach of the Year Award and primetime TV coverage in the postseason.
Fast forward to 2006, a new coach and the same results in the NBA Playoffs. By the time Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks left the FedEx Forum, the Grizzlies were 0-12 in playoff games.
Previously we suffered sweeps from the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns. We wasted some of the prime years of star Pau Gasol.
It was Pau’s younger brother Marc who helped guide the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference Finals. Although the Grizzlies were swept in that series by the Spurs, that was gravy on a big plate of mashed potatoes.
8. June 25, 2009
Grizzlies select Hasheem Thabeet No. 2 overall in 2009
The NBA Draft can make a franchise for years to come. Although the Grizzlies never held the No. 1 pick, Memphis has had two cracks at second overall pick. Our two chances in the Bluff City resulted in our current stud Ja Morant. But back in 2009 Memphis selected UConn Huskie Hasheem Thabeet.
The next pick in that 2009 draft was a guy named James Harden. We also missed out on Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan, Stephen Curry and Jrue Holiday.
Let’s say on that night, we had our doubts about the 7-foot, 3-inch center being a solid NBA player. By 2015 when Curry was hoisting up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Harden was on the road to an MVP and DeRozan as an All-Star, June 25, 2009 became one of the saddest days in Memphis sports history.
Tennessee Titans choose Nashville over Memphis
Back in 1995, rumors started about the NFL’s Houston Oilers relocating and Tennessee was on the radar of owner Bud Adams. With the largest market and stadium combination in the Volunteer State at the time, it appeared Memphis would be the permanent home of the Oilers.
But our Liberty Memorial Stadium would just be a temporary home for the Oilers until they move to their new stadium in Nashville. We would be renting the Oilers for just two years.
Memphians displayed their anger and disappointment at the box office. We refused to attend NFL regular-season games to prove our displeasure.
The Tennessee Oilers stay in the Bluff City was just one season. The rest is history. The now Tennessee Titans have blossomed in the Music City and helped the growth of Tennessee’s capital.
6. March 29, 1992
Cincinnati ends Final Four Dream of Tigers
I was 10 years old and this was the year I became a Memphis State Tiger fan because of heartache. For two weeks, my life revolved around Anfreenee “Penny” Hardaway and the Tigers.
MSU opened up that NCAA Tournament with a win over Pepperdine. Then the Tigers pulled off a thrilling victory over rival Arkansas 82-80.
The next weekend in Kansas City, Mo., Hardaway and the Tigers escaped the challenge of Georgia Tech. Waiting on us in the Elite Eight and standing in our way to the Final Four was a familiar foe. The Cincinnati Bearcats have beaten us three times already that season. The Bearcats saved the best for last. Cincinnati destroyed us 88-57 in the Regional championship. All I could do was cry once Penny Hardaway broke down in tears in the arms of Larry Finch. My head coach and star player were sad and I felt that pain in my heart.
5. December 1, 1993
Carolina & Jacksonville Awarded NFL teams
The favorites coming into the final round of NFL expansion in 1993, Memphis was feeling pretty good about finally landing in the Big Leagues. The only way we could mess it up would take something self-inflicted.
The next phase before the NFL announced the two winning cities was nicknames. We all know the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, the eventual winners. But there were others like the Baltimore Bombers and St.Louis Stallions. Solid names but not merchandise worthy. Then it came time for Memphis to declare it’s future mascot.
I understand the importance of Elvis Presley to Memphis and trying to have his legacy as a part of our NFL franchise. But Hound Dogs is not going to be catchy or have a national appeal. The Memphis Blues, Memphis Pharaohs, Memphis Kings, Memphis Musicians… anything but Hound Dogs. “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” Thanks to Hound Dogs, Memphis had nothing.
Big East dreams crash
The end of the Big East as a major conference came just in time for Memphis’ invitation to be voided. Current University of Memphis students and alumni were happy and so proud when the announcement came down of the Tigers being a part of the Big East.
We had dreams of BCS Bowls, big-time basketball showdowns and new rivalries with teams like Miami and UConn.
Overnight, the Big East dissolved into a basketball only conference. Almost a decade later Memphis is still being rejected by the bigger conferences like the Big 12.
Will we ever get into a Power 5 conference?
4. March 29, 2009
John Calipari Leaves
John Calipari is the most successful basketball coach in Memphis Tiger history. Although the NCAA doesn’t recognize most of it, we all remember the Elite Eights and the national title game in 2008. Even in his last season with the Tigers, Calipari guided Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen.
Under Calipari the Tigers had a No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, a pair of Rookie of the Years and several pros.
The future seemed bright for the Tigers in 2009 with the No. 1 recruiting class coming to play for Calipari. Then came doomsday and the rumor of Coach Cal leaving for the Bluegrass State becoming true.
Calipari was heading to Kentucky for his “dream” job and that package of top level recruits wouldn’t see the lights of the Bluff City. We lost names like Demarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry and John Wall.
The program hasn’t seen the heights of the Calipari Era since. Maybe things will finally return to that level in 2021-22.
3. March 12, 2005
Darius Washington missed free-throw
If there ever was a moment a Memphis heartbreak was shared with the rest of the nation, it came when Tiger guard Darius Washington missed those foul shots vs. Louisville in the C-USA Championship.
On the line in the FedEx Forum that day was Memphis’ automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. If the Tigers lose, the dream of reaching the Big Dance is over.
Down two points, Washington stepped to the free-throw line for three free throws with no time left on the clock. After making the first free-throw, the sold-out crowd of 18,600 was feeling pretty good. Then Washington missed the second attempt and faced a must-make it to just tie the game.
Washington’s final free throw bounced off the rim and he collapsed to the Forum floor along with every Tiger fan in the world watching or listening. Calipari rushed to his side as the reality set in of losing to our most hated rival in that fashion. And it all took place on national television.
2. February 1, 1997
Larry Finch Resigns
It goes down officially in the history books as Finch resigning. But we all know he was fired from his post as head coach of his beloved Tigers. Coach Finch rejected an offer to stay with the University of Memphis in a secondary role when he agreed to take $413,660 to resign at the end of that season.
Finch is near the top of most categories at Memphis as a player. With 220 wins, Finch is among the best to ever command the sideline for the Blue and Gray.
How things played out and witnessing the only coach I’ve known for the Tigers, departure ripped my soul apart. I learned the business aspect of college basketball and the Tigers were no different.
The man who called me son and signed my autograph book was gone. I respected Finch as a basketball legend in our city and a good coach. But as a man he was awesome.
When I was in the eighth grade, I was on campus for a Science Fair. My friend and I spotted Cedric Henderson and Chris Garner. Two of my favorite Tigers, I was stoked to meet them. Then all four of us heard a voice.
It was Coach Finch. While my friend and I were excited, Henderson and Garner were not too happy. Coach Finch was there to encourage his star players to pull up their grades. Good enough to pass, Finch told them they needed to excel because they are role models to children like me.
Coach was right, I looked up to the Tigers like celebrities and their success as my success. So Finch’s firing was like the Tigers canning me as well.
1. April 7, 2008
Mario Chalmers makes a 3-point shot
The final 2 minutes and 12 seconds of the 2008 NCAA National Championship is hard to relive. My dream of heading down to Beale Street with blue, gray and white ticker tape floating through the Memphis sky as the Tigers display the wooden title trophy came crashing down.
Ahead by 9 points over the Kansas Jayhawks in the AlamoDome, Memphis was about to paint San Antonio blue and gray.
But a series of mistakes, miscues and misjudgments resulted in an overtime defeat to Kansas. Mario Chalmers will always hold a dark place in my heart. He robbed me of my dream. Maybe a 2022 National championship will ease that pain from nearly 14 years ago. The saddest day in Memphis sports history.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.